Leadership from the 'heart'

FORT DIX, N.J. -- I was sitting in the front row of the auditorium in my son Jackson's school waiting for the spelling bee to start. 

I was anxious to see how Jackson would do amongst the best spellers in school. Once it started, he was the fifth person they called. His word was, "intermediate." He replies, "Intermediate, i-n-t-e-r-m-e-d-i-a-t-e, intermediate." 

Jackson said it with such confidence the audience, which was the entire student body, staff and parents, cheered in amazement. I even looked over at his mother sitting next to me and also at his teacher a few rows down, and they were both so very proud. However, I was the proudest of them all. 

I watched him make it well into the third round before he misspelled a word by one letter. However, he still spelled it in the confidence-inspired action he used in the first few rounds. No matter what, I was so very proud of him. 

Jackson's spelling bee experience was his first. It was an event built in his dedication to himself and in the hard work he put in to learn the spelling of hundreds of words they used for the spelling bee. He showed how someone can inspire others despite the life challenges he has faced with autism. He believes what is in his heart and no disability will ever slow him down. 

During that spelling bee, I learned a lot from my son. I learned he has the heart of a champion whether he wins or not. I saw that leadership from the heart comes in all forms - including an 11-year-old boy with autism. 

Jackson is the youngest of five children for my wife and me. He's faced a lot more "in class" time than most children his age and maintains the same grade proficiency as children his age. He doesn't even think twice about it - he just goes through life like this is the way it is. 

It's hard, in a way, for me to even talk about this because it means accepting I have a child with a disability. But, on the other hand, I've never looked at Jackson's abilities as a disability because I know he can overcome anything. He has heart and a team around him who will do what it takes to get him to the next level. 

I also see in him many of the core values the Air Force instills in us as Airmen. For example, let's start with "integrity first." Jackson takes ownership of his priorities, does his schoolwork, his chores at home and loves his family. 

How about "service before self?" Jackson is always willing to support "Team Sturkol" in whatever task or adventure we undertake. He shows good followership, and when called upon, he takes the lead willingly even if he knows it's a learning process along the way.
With "excellence in all we do," Jackson strives to master everything he becomes involved with. It's one of the traits he holds that is also an advantage. For instance, he taught himself how to type on the computer at age 4, and by age 5, he could load software for me. He did these things because he really wanted to be good at it. 

In defining leadership, we often hear about the intangibles that make a good leader such as confidence, inspiration, motivation and heart. 

For me, having "heart" means having that desire to persevere where others might not. Or, it can also mean believing in your ability to do whatever it is you put your mind forth to do. I saw the heart of a leader in my son that day at the spelling bee. His performance inspired me as well as others. 

As life goes on for Jackson, I know it won't get any easier. However, I know he will demonstrate "leadership from the heart" and make my heart proud for being around him.

If you asked Jackson what he knows about autism, he'd tell you, "I don't know anybody with autism." My reply is always the same - "Neither do I son, neither do I." 

Take a look around you and inside you, my guess is you'll see how leadership, from the heart, can carry you to new heights and soar beyond the clouds of doubt.